On the Greatest Generation

Merchant Marine veterans met in St. Louis

in March 2018 for their annual convention. 

Photograph used courtesy of the American Merchant Marine Veterans of World War II

My parents’ generation (born 1905-1925) has been called “The Greatest Generation.” People who are young adults today (born 1975-1995) are impressed by the men and women who now remain in very small numbers, men and women who were their grandparents and, even, their great-grandparents.


They are impressed by how The Greatest Generation rose to the challenges presented by World War II – and, indeed, they did! That war was so massive in scale that it forced civilians out of their comfort zones and into the war effort. Civilians took over production jobs in factories, rolled bandages for the injured servicemen, and took in orphaned children from overseas and kept them safe until their parents could be located. They lost their ready supply of food and medicine and clothes and gasoline in order that those items might be diverted to the war effort. Those are the qualities we most often read and hear about.


Don’t get me wrong. Not everyone made the sacrifice willingly. Not everyone favored the policies of Franklin Roosevelt. Not everyone favored US involvement in the war; others thought we should have entered the war much earlier than we did. We are a nation of independent thinkers – as well we should be; no democracy can survive, otherwise – but when a crisis arises, we are like the fragmented family that pulls back together in times of emergency.


Something drove The Greatest Generation to make those sacrifices. That something was the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” They would have liked to think that someone would take in their children if something happened to them, and so, they took in the orphaned children of Europe. They would have liked to think the servicemen had fuel for their tanks and food for their stomachs, and so, they walked more and gave up their Sunday roasts in favor of chickens they raised in their own backyards. Arising from this, The Greatest Generation enjoyed good, wholesome enjoyment. They read wholesome books. They watched wholesome movies. They listened to music with wholesome lyrics. Anything less was found only in men’s locker rooms, which were highly suspect.


The war was not The Greatest Generation’s only quality. They had another quality that also made a big impression: They put their best foot forward. They dressed to their best advantage. A childhood story told of Little Dilly, whose father had died and whose mother could not afford to dress her as well as other children dressed. But Little Dilly’s mother was careful to send her out in clothes that were freshly washed and ironed (no permanent press in those days). In those days of chiffon ball gowns and dressing gowns, more than one person, who couldn’t afford a ball gown, wore a dressing gown cinched at the waist with a gold-colored belt. It has been said that no one was the wiser -– and they probably weren’t! Just as they dressed neatly, if not expensively, they styled their hair and put on their lipstick.


More importantly, they watched the words that came out of their mouths. A curse word brought gasps of horror in those days, but then, curse words were not needed, for the guiding rule was “You can catch a lot more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.” In other words, it’s not what you say, but how you say it that is important. In those days, people were very skillful in making themselves understood without demeaning themselves. Which is the better way of expressing displeasure…“You'd be crazy to go out with him!”  or “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but he has an atrocious reputation. Frankly, I think I would tell him I was going to be busy that night.”


In short, they set higher standards for themselves, and they used the teachings of the Bible to help them adhere to those standards. They kept company with other people who were also trying to maintain higher standards. And, do you know, very little of it had anything to do with money or social standing. It all came down to how they wanted to feel about themselves. And, so, it was something that was available to everyone. We can have it, too, if we will only make the effort.

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Copyright (c) 2009-2019, Virginia Tolles